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Anne Wallingford, WordSmith


Seeing the Chicago Art Institute from a Different Perspective,
April 2003

Thanks to my new set of red wheels—delivered in March—I was finally able to get out and do something fun!

The adventure definitely had mixed blessings, though.

The medvan arrived a few minutes earlier than the scheduled 10:30 a.m. pick-up, but that was fine. I was even able to maneuver myself up the medvan ramp, backward, with my niece's help, and the driver buckled my chair into place. (It's much easier getting out if I go into the medvan backward.) I don't know if there are really a lot more cars on the road now (I quit driving four years ago) or if it just seemed that way, but the traffic was bumper-to-bumper for the entire fifty-minute ride downtown. Made me glad, actually, that I no longer drove!

We arrived at the Art Institute without any problem. The handicap entrance is the same as where school buses discharge passengers, so we joined the queue. It only took a few minutes until it was our turn to pull in front of the door. (This entrance is at the rear of the art museum, and there are no stairs. It used to be the entrance to the Goodman Theatre, so I was familiar with it.)

Once inside, I was both excited and a bit intimidated at the thought of what I was doing. I was sure glad I had my niece with me! She'd been on a field trip to the art museum about three weeks earlier, and basically knew her way around. It had been more than twenty years since I was at the museum—my last visit was a year before I left Chicago to move to Mansfield, and since my return to Chicago I'd been unable to get back for a visit.

The noise inside the lobby was unbelievable. The lobby is a large, cavernous space with a marble floor and plastered walls. There were at least two good-size tour groups of high school students assembled and being organized by their tour leaders. No one was shouting, but the noise from everyone talking was deafening. I was surprised the museum hadn't done something to soundproof the area—even indoor/outdoor carpeting would help. Since it was too noisy for us to hear each other, my niece and I used hand signals to indicate what we wanted to do. In this manner we moved across the lobby to the ticket counter where my niece presented our free passes to the ticket agent while I waited on the side. Once through the entrance, we picked-up museum maps and tried to figure out where to go first.

One thing that I had certainly forgotten—if I even realized it before—is that Chicago's Art Institute is actually several buildings under one roof. To go from one building to another, one has to find the proper hall then go up or down the connecting flight of stairs. There are elevators that can be used, but like most public buildings, the elevators are in distant corners of the building. To go from one floor/building to another, one must find the right elevator because not all elevators connect to all buildings. Suffice to say that we spent a lot of our trip riding up and down elevators!

The one exhibit I really wanted to see was the paperweight collection. I remembered going with my dad when I was young to see the paperweights, and I'd often thought of this exhibit over the years. So we headed down the hall past the East Asian Buddha statues, and lots of teen-agers, to the elevator. And this is where I had my first experience with the limitations of being in the power chair. It was easy to get into the elevator—easier than when someone had to push me in the manual chair. But there was no way to turn the chair around inside the small elevator so I could reach the buttons. If I'd been by myself, I couldn't have even gone out backwards and then backed into the elevator because then I could not have reached the buttons at all. (Going backwards into an elevator is not something I would want to do, anyway.) Fortunately, we were the only passengers. So when we reached the lower level my niece was able to hold the elevator doors open and I rolled out backwards.

The paperweight collection was even more impressive than I remembered. The paperweights were organized in themed wall displays; some paperweights had maze-like swirls; others had butterflies or flowers; still others had just about anything else you can think of! The majority of the paperweights came from one well-known art glass design firm. But I 'll be darned if I can remember the name! (One of the drawbacks to my multiple sclerosis is short-term memory problems. It irks the heck out of me, but there isn't much I can do about it.)

Next we went past a small section of the furniture and textile displays (I'd have enjoyed looking at these but they bored my niece) and headed back to the elevator. At least this time I knew what to expect. We exited the elevator at the Main floor and headed across to the next set of elevators so we could go to the Second Floor.

Almost immediately after exiting the elevator we were in the hall with the Monet paintings. I have always loved his work, and can appreciate now, more than I did in the past, how he experimented with light. I have always found his work to be joyous and calming. From the Monet hall we passed through halls with other well-remembered paintings such as Sunday in the Park with George (pointillism), and works by Rembrandt, Debussy, and others. It felt like visiting old friends once again.

From these galleries we headed over to look at European paintings from the Middle Ages. My niece was looking for a painting she remembered seeing on a previous visit, when she was younger, but she didn't remember the exact description or artist. We figured out that the painting she was thinking about had to be from the 1600 to 1700s. To reach those galleries, we had to pass to the Second Floor of another building, but we were almost foiled in our attempt to get there. When we reached the “joining area” between the buildings there were five stairs up to the connecting hallway. The only other option, we thought, was to go back to the elevator, down, across, and up another elevator. As we looked at each other, a guard came up to us and asked if were trying to reach the corridor. We shook our heads “yes.” He beckoned us over to the stairs where, off on the side, and closed flat against the wall so it was not visible, was a…. contraption.

I don't know if you've ever seen those flat platforms used in public places where a wheelchair rider can be elevated to another level. There's nothing fancy to them. They're just a flat platform with 3 sides and either a gate or bar across the front. The passenger pushes a lever to go either up or down. I hadn't ridden in one of those for a very long time, but I recognized it. But what I couldn't figure out was how this platform could get me up the stairs. The marble balustrade made an effective barrier, so I thought. Although I was supposed to go onto this platform backwards, it was very narrow and I just couldn't maneuver the power chair well enough to get myself centered on the platform. So I rode onto the platform frontward and reached to the side and slightly backwards to work the lever control…

Have you ever seen advertisements for chair lifts that go upstairs? A person sits on a small chair and the lift glides up the stairway. Now picture a flat platform with a person in a wheelchair sitting on one of these types of stairway lifts. Only the chair lift has to go around a curve at the bottom of the balustrade then move upward on a slant. The passenger (me) is riding backwards and upwards on a slant. Weird. Disconcerting!

The ascent only took a few minutes even though it sure seemed longer to me. When the lift halted, the guard opened the gate and I had to disembark—backwards. Yeah, right. Even disembarking going forwards would have been tricky as there was literally no room between the side of the wheelchair and the wall. If I'd been disembarking frontward I think I would have been able to angle slightly to clear the wall. But backwards I didn't have a chance. It was frustrating! And although the power chair has a wonderful ability to turn in tight areas, I couldn't go forward or I would have taken a header down the stairs. With a lot of encouragement and direction giving from my niece, I finally managed to get turned around. The guard? What guard? As soon as the chair ramp reached the top and I'd backed off, he took it back down, “parked it,” and disappeared.

Going up the lift only took a few minutes, but it took almost a half hour before I could actually turn around and keep going down the connecting hallway.

By that time, my nerves were a bit frazzled. So I stayed in the hall looking at the artwork on display in the hall while my niece went in and out of the various galleries. I found it interesting, though. Because I was viewing just portions of the gallery art from the hall I could pick up overall impressions of the art. My first thought, after just having viewed Monet's work, was the striking contrast between the Impressionists and the art of the 13th and 14th centuries. It goes without saying that the content was different—art from the early centuries concentrated on religious themes, with people as the focus. But what struck me most forcefully wasn't so much the content but the stylistic differences. Impressionist art is, by nature, somewhat ethereal and hazy. The colors tend to be pastels; even dark colors have that “fuzzy” look. But art from the earlier time period was sharp and distinct. Bold, with vivid colors. And although the paintings lacked the three-dimensional feel of art from a later time period, the people in the pictures were very striking.

As we moved down the galleries to the 16th and 17th centuries, I could observe the changes in style. The topics were less religious and focused more on people posing for portraits. The colors, while still sharp, were much darker and nowhere near as bold. I enjoyed studying the paintings this way because it gave me a fresh appreciation for the way art has evolved.

After circling the galleries twice (my niece never did find the painting she was looking for) it was time for me to find a restroom. We found the second floor elevator designated “handicapped” on our tour map, but when we got to the elevator corner we just shook our heads. To access the door to the elevator, you had to go through a very narrow recess in the wall. Although the recess wasn't more than 15 inches deep it was enough to prevent someone reaching over/around me to hold the doors open. And frankly, I didn't even want to try going through the narrow opening—it just did not look wide enough. A stroller would fit, but not someone in a chair like mine.

We looked at the map again, and decided to try the other elevator in this building even though it was not marked handicap-accessible. We circled the gallery for a third time. This elevator was fine! The only problem was that we had to ride this elevator down to the first floor then transfer to another elevator to reach the lower level where the handicap restrooms were.

And from this point on, the outing was no longer fun.

The restroom experience was a nightmare. Yes, there was a handicap stall. I could get the chair down the narrow aisle to the handicap stall. I could even turn and drive into the stall. But then my knees touched the wall and I couldn't stand. Getting myself out of the stall by going backwards didn't work. There were stalls on both sides of the aisle and the handicap stall had a pillar almost directly across from the stall door! I was able to back up slightly and my niece literally had to climb over the chair, and me, to get in front of me to help me stand. (I can't get out of the chair on my own.) Then she and several women in the restroom worked for ten minutes on lifting and turning the 300 lb. chair to get it out of the stall. A stranger kindly held open the door to my stall while I clutched onto it for support. This was physically difficult, embarrassing, and draining.

After we left the restroom, I knew I had to take a break so suggested we stop at one of the museum's restaurants to eat. We opted for the cafeteria, as we only had to return to the up elevator, go up one floor, cross a short distance, and go down again to the building with the cafeteria. (To reach the sit-down restaurant we would have had to go up and down at least three times.) Again, my niece was super. I held the tray on my lap while she went to the different counters and picked up our food. Then she walked in front of me in the line to pay and lifted the tray onto the slide so the cashier could do a tally. She even took my wallet and paid. Without her help I would not have been able to purchase any food at the cafeteria.

While my niece was tending to these details, I was trying to figure out how the heck we were going to get to a table to eat. I'd pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I'd have to sit by the condiments rack with the ketchup, mustard, and napkins, and eat there, while she threaded her way to a table. The reason? The tables in the cafeteria were so close together that an ambulatory person had to walk sideways to get past seated diners. No way was the room wheelchair-accessible.

As luck would have it, just as we paid the cashier, a family group seated at a table right in front of us finished eating. I called over to the father and asked if he would please save it for us; he did. So my niece and I were able to sit together at a table. We took our time eating; she was tired from walking, and I was just tired. Fortunately, by the time we finished eating the crowd had thinned out and there were no more people in line to pay. This was good because the only way I could exit the cafeteria was back the way I came in; the regular exit was halfway down the cafeteria, past the tables, and even without people seated at the tables there was not enough room for a wheelchair to reach the exit. After leaving the cafeteria we headed back to the lobby to wait for the medvan. We lucked out, as it was only fifteen minutes late. (I've waited for as long as two hours for a scheduled return trip pick-up.)

Then came the worst part of the day: getting onto the medvan to return home. This was an older model medvan. (The medvans are always minivans, usually Chrysler minivans.) The ramp on this one was narrower than on newer models, AND there was a latch that extended four inches into the doorway. There was absolutely no way I could get up backwards. Even going frontward was almost impossible because of the back and forth maneuvering needed to get past that stupid latch. It took my niece, the driver, and two guards to get me up and in. As it was, one back wheel of the chair did go off the ramp; if it hadn't been for the two guards grabbing the chair and shoving, I'd have gone backwards off the side of the ramp. This was worse than unpleasant—it was frightening.

The driver, who did not speak English, evidently was scheduled to pick up another wheelchair passenger from downtown. What a joke. There was no way I was going to get off and back on so another person could share the ride, and with the way my chair was positioned there was absolutely no room for anyone else. The driver stopped at the pick-up location, got out, and left the doors open for thirty minutes. (I think the law says that a medvan while doing pick-ups has to leave the doors open.) It was windy and cold and my niece and I were shivering in no time. The driver finally came back pushing someone in a wheelchair. He came up to me and motioned for me to pull forward. I shook my head “no” and pointed towards my feet. There was no room for me to move forward. At least he had enough sense not to even motion for me to exit the medvan!

After he took the other person back into the building, and returned to the driver's seat, we headed home. The ride was uneventful and we arrived home just fine. Once in the house I pretty much collapsed.

So now I've had my first real outing with my new power chair. Will I go to the Art Institute again? Not in this lifetime. But I'm glad I went. I learned that I can't handle any real outings solo even with the power chair. (So much for my hopes for some independence.) I also had first hand experience of how un-accessible supposedly accessible public places are. And now I'm concentrating on remembering the good parts of the outing: viewing long-lost “friends,” developing a better understanding of art history, and appreciating once again just how special my thirteen-year-old is.

Until my next adventure…

Copyright © 2003 Anne Wallingford. All Rights Reserved.

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Saturday, January 24, 2004 00:35